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Ukraine updates: Wagner Group reports 10,000 prisoner deaths

Published May 24, 2023last updated May 24, 2023

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin reported casualties that far exceed the official data from Moscow. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed to bolster the marine corps after visiting the front line. DW has the latest.

Yevgeny Prigozhin standing in front of a cemetery for Wagner Group mercenaries
Yevgeny Prigozhin said a fifth of the prison inmates he recruited to fight in Ukraine were killedImage: Handout/TELEGRAM/@concordgroup_official/AFP

The head of Russian mercenary group Wagner said around 10,000 prisoners who had been recruited to fight in Ukraine had been killed on the battlefield.

Yevgeny Prigozhin made international headlines six months into the invasion of Ukraine after he was seen touring Russia’s prisons and offering amnesty to those who agree to fight, provided they come back alive.

"I took 50,000 prisoners of which around 20% were killed," Prigozhin said in a video interview published late on Tuesday.

He added that a similar proportion had been killed among the general population who had also chosen to enlist with the mercenary group.

The combined Wagner Group figures are a stark contrast to the official statistics released by Moscow, which claimed just over 6,000 casualties late last year.

They are also higher than the official estimate of Soviet losses in Afghanistan at 15,000 casualties between 1979 and 1989.

Prigozhin is a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but has more recently been at loggerheads with the Kremlin in a series of video updates in which he has made unverified, expletive-laden claims, some of which he has backtracked on.

In the interview, he accused the Kremlin’s forces of killing civilians during the war, an accusation Moscow has repeatedly and vehemently denied.

Prigozhin has also more broadly blamed losses in the front line city of Bakhmut on a lack of support from Russia’s military.

"There are now tens of thousands of relatives of those who were killed. Probably there will be hundreds of thousands," he said in the interview. "We cannot hide from this."

The Wagner Group: Russia's shadow mercenary organization

Here are some of the other developments concerning Russia's war in Ukraine on Wednesday, May 24:

Ukraine calls on African nations to end 'neutrality' over war

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has called on certain African nations to end what he described as "neutrality" over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking in Ethiopia during a regional tour, Kuleba told a press conference in English: "By being neutral towards the Russian aggression against Ukraine, you project your neutrality to the violation of borders and mass crimes that may occur very close to you, if not happen to you."

The Ukrainian foreign minister acknowledged the historical ties some African countries had with the former Soviet Union, particularly during the decolonization era of the past century.

"This Russia is very different. I think the biggest real investment of Russia in Africa today is the Wagner mercenaries," he said, in reference to the private military group taking the lead on many frontlines in Ukraine.

The mercenary group has reported presence in several African countries including Libya, Sudan and Mali.

Kuleba also acknowledged the little attention Ukraine's foreign policy gave African countries for years, saying: "we lost a lot." He pledged that Kyiv, a prime source of grain for the continent, was on Africa's side in regards to food security. 

Several African countries, including Ethiopia, have abstained from United Nations General Assembly votes condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia says foiled Ukraine attack on warship

Russia said on Wednesday it had foiled an attack on one of its warships in Turkish waters, blaming Kyiv for the incident.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Ivan Khurs ship of its Black Sea Fleet was "unsuccessful[ly]" attacked with three unmanned speedboats in the early hours of Wednesday.

It added that the vessel had been placed there to guard pipeline infrastructure which carries gas across the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey.

The ministry said the alleged attack justified expanding measures to defend Moscow's pipelines.

Only last week, Russia extended a deal which allows the safe export of Ukrainian grain through certain Black Sea ports amid the war.

Stoltenberg admits divide in NATO over Ukraine's accession

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that consultations were ongoing ahead of the alliance's upcoming summit over Ukraine's bid to join, acknowledging that there were "different views" among members.

"No one is able to tell you exactly what will be the final decision of the Vilnius summit on this issue," Stoltenberg told a conference in Brussels.

The NATO chief stressed once again that Ukraine could not join the alliance so long as it is engaged in an active war. But he also acknowledged divisions over the way forward after the war ends.

"On that issue there are different views in the alliance and of course the only way to make decisions in NATO is by consensus," he added.

Kyiv has urged for an accelerated membership process, especially after Russia's full-scale invasion and the illegal annexation of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine. 

Eastern European allies have supported Kyiv's calls to secure concrete steps toward membership during the Vilnius summit. However, Western NATO members are wary of any moves which could bring the alliance closer to active conflict with Moscow.

In an op-ed for Foreign Affairs in April, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote: "It is time for the alliance to stop making excuses and start the process that leads to Ukraine's eventual accession."

Russia vows to react 'extremely harshly' to future attacks

Moscow has warned that it will respond promptly to any future attacks on Russian soil, following an apparent military incursion and multiple drone strikes in villages in the Belgorod region.

"We will continue to respond promptly and extremely harshly to such actions by Ukrainian militants," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told military officials on Wednesday.

It comes after Russia said a "sabotage" group had crossed into its territory to launch an attack on the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.

Kyiv has denied any involvement in the incident while two Russian rebel groups — the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps — claimed responsibility.

'The incursion seems to have been a big deal for Russia'

WHO condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine

The World Health Organization (WHO) has passed a motion condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including its attacks on healthcare facilities.

The Western-led motion passed by 80 votes to 9, with 52 abstentions and 36 countries absent.

Russia had submitted a counter-proposal which recognized the health emergency in Ukraine but did not mention Moscow's role in the war.

The counter-proposal failed by 62 votes to 13, with 61 abstentions and 41 countries absent.

Tensions ran high ahead of the two votes, with Moscow's representative to the WHO interrupting with points of order during speeches that were critical of Russia. Russia had also distributed pamphlets accusing Ukrainian forces of attacking medical facilities.

Britain's envoy to the WHO Simon Manley accused Russia of spreading "disinformation" at the assembly.

Crimea flat belonging to Olena Zelenska expropriated

Russian-installed officials in Crimea have announced they are nationalizing a fresh wave of assets, including an apartment in Yalta belonging to the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska.

"Crimea is continuing to nationalize assets of Russia's enemies," the peninsula's Kremlin-appointed governor, Sergei Aksyonov, said on social media.

Also included was a building in Simferopol that belonged to the Mejlis — the representative body for Crimean Tatars.

Russia banned the Mejlis after it annexed Crimea in 2014, declaring it an extremist organization and jailing members of the Muslim minority group since then.

Zelenskyy vows to bolster marine corps

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday that Kyiv is planning to reinforce its marine brigades.

"New marine brigades will be added to our existing units, and we will provide them with modern weapons and equipment," he said in his nightly video address.

Ukraine's "key task" was "to bolster our defense, to increase the capabilities of our warriors and our country as a whole," he said.

Zelenskyy made the comments after visiting front-line positions near the towns of Vuhledar and Maryinka in the Donetsk region.

He presented awards to dozens of soldiers on the national Day of the Ukrainian Marines.

Belgorod under drone attack again, governor claims 

Belgorod has once again come under drone attack, according to the governor of the Russian region close to the Ukraine border. 

Vyacheslav Gladkov reported on his Telegram channel that no one was injured after an explosive was dropped. 

Russia said Tuesday it had quashed an attack by Ukrainian saboteurs on the region, following a 24-hour battle that left 70 people dead. Kyiv denied any involvement.  

The US said it does not "encourage or enable attacks inside Russia." State department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a press briefing, however, that as Russia was the aggressor, the US would "leave it to our Ukrainian partners to decide how to conduct this war." 

Miller also said Washington was "skeptical" about reports that US-supplied weapons had been deployed during the attack on Belgorod.  

Russia claims to 'eliminate' cross-border attackers

German air force inspector says Berlin could contribute to fighter jet coalition

Ingo Gerhartz, the German air force inspector, said that a German contribution to a fighter jet coalition for Ukraine is possible, despite Berlin lacking the aircraft favored by Kyiv. 

"Nations that don't have F-16s can support here more on the margins, like with infrastructure or also training," Gerhartz told the Tagesspiegel newspaper. 

Gerhartz said Germany's level of involvement in such a coalition was "a political decision." 

"Not least because of its rapid availability, Ukraine is now looking to F-16s to better support its land forces," the air force inspector said. "Many countries have just freshly retired their aircraft and could deliver them to Ukraine in a timely manner."

The fighter jet coalition, which was announced at the latest G7 summit in Japan, is slowly coming together. Poland and the Netherlands are in the lead in planning to train Ukrainian pilots and could deliver fighter jets to Kyiv as a second step.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has said that Berlin's contribution "would not be decisive because we simply do not have any F-16 aircraft and presumably could not help very much with pilot training either." 

Why Ukraine is pleading for Western fighter jets

Russia 'struggled to enforce discipline' in military — UK 

The British Defence Ministry said in its regular intelligence update that the number of Russian deserters in the war against Ukraine has recently increased significantly.

Citing "credible research by independent Russian journalists," the report said Russian military courts dealt with 1,053 cases of military personnel going absent without leave (AWOL) between January and May 2023, more than during the whole of 2022.

"Russia's military has struggled to enforce discipline in its ranks throughout its operations in Ukraine," the report said, adding that the situation likely worsened for Russia after last year's forced mobilization of reservists.

Those who have gone AWOL have likely been handed suspended sentences so they could be redeployed in the war, the report said, citing court data. 

"Russia's efforts to improve discipline have focused on making examples of defaulters, and promoting patriotic zeal, rather than addressing the root causes of soldiers' disillusionment."

Russia makes it harder to avoid conscription

Prigozhin warns Russian elite of unrest over war

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner, has warned that Russia could face a revolution if Moscow's elite did not get "serious" about the war, according to a report by Reuters news agency. 

"Most likely of all, this scenario will not be good for Russia so we need to prepare for an arduous war," he said in an interview cited by Reuters. 

"We are in such a condition that we could [...] lose Russia — that is the main problem," he said. "We need to impose martial law."

Prigozhin said the Russian elite were protecting their children from fighting in the war while ordinary Russians were on the front line, possibly triggering turmoil in Russia. 

Russian jet intercepts two US bombers over Baltic — Russian media

A Russian military jet was dispatched to intercept two US bombers that were flying over the Baltic Sea, Russian news agencies TASS and Interfax reported citing military sources.

The Pentagon said that the aircraft was part of a long-planned exercise in Europe.

A US Defense Department spokesperson said that the interaction with the crew of the Russian aircraft was "safe and professional."

The two Russian Su-27 jets took off after two US supersonic B-1B bombers approached Russian airspace, according to Russian media.

Very few Russian conscientious objectors have received asylum in Germany — report

Only 55 Russian conscientious objectors have received asylum so far in Germany, the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND) reports.

Germany has received just under 2,500 asylum requests from Russian conscientious objectors. Eighty-eight applications have been denied.

Some 671 requests were resolved either by being transferred to another country under the EU's Dublin procedure or due to withdrawal by the applicant.

A total of 1,671 applications are still pending.

Jan Korte, lawmaker for the Left party, criticized the small intake of men refusing military service.

"If well over 100,000 men of military age leave Russia and refuse Putin's war, but only 55 of them find official protection in Germany, something is going terribly wrong."

He accused Germany's government of being "cynical" and "pursuing the decimation of Putin's army by supplying arms, but not by supporting desertion and conscientious objection."

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zc, fb, sdi/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)